Erica liked to imagine that the others around campus saw her as some kind of fey creature. She’d been on campus longer than most, now, approaching her sixth year without graduating, and she was considering a second change of major - which would keep her on campus another two years.
She was, if nothing else, unpredictable to those around her, and she prided herself on that. That was most of the reason she’d agreed to take part in a psych experiment - it just wasn’t her sort of thing at all, and nobody would expect it of her. Most would be stunned she’d sat still long enough, aside from anything else.
She’d been a little weirded out that it only seemed to be women in the trial - she’d had to put up with some of the loudest ladies on campus complaining about how medical research ignored women all the time, so what was this? Where were the guys?
But Erica Carrow had a reputation to keep up, never predictable, never backing down from anything. Earning that reputation had been a crazy amount of fun, and it was, she was sure, going to continue to be the key to the beds of exciting men and women who could keep her having plenty of fun.
So she wasn’t going to back down from this! It was a half an hour, staring at a screen. She dealt with worse than that every time her old friend Raquel wanted to try being an ‘influencer’ again and she had to go round and give moral support. At least for this she could just stare, she wasn’t expected to have opinions or constructive criticism.
That being said, Erica had no intentions of giving this study her all. She sat down in her designated spot like the rest of them, put her headphones on like the rest of them, and figured she’d watch the first few moments, like the rest of them.
“OK, ladies,” said the creepy shorter psych student from the experiment, recorded in her headphones, “we’re about to begin. Remember, you’re going to need to watch the screen. You’ll hear a variety of sounds from these headphones, and that’s part of how we’re collecting data on recall. Don’t worry about them.”
The on-screen countdown gave way to a shimmering, distorted pink display. A pastel yellow swirl turned behind fluffy pink clouds. Patches of a soft, blurred white flickered in and out of the display; Erica felt like she could make out letters, but not words. It was, she decided, kinda pretty. And then it felt like her heartbeat started to sound in her ears, before she realised it was soundscape from the experiment.
Her attention wandered, but her eyes stayed riveted to the screen. That felt at once wrong and strangely right. Erica whimpered, but she had a reputation to keep up. She bit her lip and hoped nobody had heard.
The more she looked, the less she found she could look away. That was honestly giving her the creeps. She could feel her concern giving way to worry to full-blown fear. What was this? What was going on? Who would dare do this to Erica Carrow? Fear and anger were building inside here and then, suddenly, they seemed to numb around the edges. Her terror at this confined, trapped, fascinated state was blunted… and then began to fade entirely.
To be honest with herself - something Felicity’s teenage years had been spent resisting doing, then coming to terms with, before firmly embracing - she’d felt so nervous during the pre-experiment talks that she’d nearly backed out, not once but several times.
Unlike many of the others involved - who had simply spotted that there was an opportunity to get paid for half an hour or so out of their day - Felicity had read the full description. She’d known going in that only women would be accepted. And she’d worried that she wouldn’t be, couldn’t be.
Felicity had to worry whether she passed, every single day. She was becoming more comfortable, but it was other people’s eyes that made her flinch. Being honest in herself didn’t mean others were willing to accept her truth.
So she’d emailed beforehand, outlined her history, and asked if she would be accepted. And one of the students administering the experiment had written back, politely, to say that they would absolutely welcome a woman in transition. Of course, when she’d arrived and seen the students in charge, she’d wondered whether she’d made a mistake, but the taller one of the two smiled and made a point of coming over and greeting her, as well as the others. When she introduced herself, he paused for a second, and grinned. “I’m really glad you made it,” he told her.
But that didn’t exactly cancel out the nerves - how could it?
And so it was that only once she’d sat down and begun to listen to the slow steady beat that was part of the experiment that she started to calm down. That unease, the constant background of her life outside her dorm room on campus, was slipping away.
In fact she realised she was feeling calmer and more relaxed, more comfortable, than she ever did.
If it hadn’t been so peaceful she might have been uneasy about it.
Felicity was always sensitive to the people around her, and she was conscious that the video was having the same effect on them. Sharp, precise body language was blunting in the chairs next to her. The constant minor noises of the ceaseless fidgets in the room were suddenly gone.
Peace had settled on all ten women in the room.
That never happened. Felicity wondered if she should worry, but that didn’t seem to be an option. She decided that going with this feeling was going to be a much better idea.
Her skin seemed to be fizzing with the pleasure of being completely at peace.
The pink clouds on the screen in front of her deepened and flushed, becoming purple; dancing yellow spirals between them turned pink in turn. Felicity felt not just at piece but at home, watching transformation on a screen, her scalp tingling with the idea of transformation within her.
As idea it had to be. It might feel like change was happening to her even in the space of minutes, but that wasn’t possible.
Licks of white occasionally emerged from the clouds, only to be lost again. Felicity felt like there were messages just out of reach. Maybe the other women there were reading them and, bereft of early childhood cues, she couldn’t; but that image, which might under other circumstances have struck fear into her, was peaceful and calm instead.
This was a much better way to be. This was so much more like she felt she should be.
Like Felicity, the other women at the two stations were still, now, effectively thoughtless, without ideas of their own; still, now, stripped of honest emotion, feelings come by through experience and input. But there was a common theme coursing through their bodies now, one which was rising and intensifying moment by moment, minute by minute.
Erica became aware of a soft, urgent, needy whimpering of arousal. It took a few moments before she realised it was her own - and that was the first she realised of her arousal. Somehow she hadn’t noticed; something in her focus on the screen seemed to have taken her mind off everything, even her own bodily reactions. And, now that she’d realised, she lost the thread of that again.
Moments later her focus was fully back on the screen, on the muzak in her ears. She became aware of a soft, urgent, needy whimpering of arousal. It took a few moments before she realised it was her own…
Felicity took longer to make a sound, her voice finally, quaveringly, joining a low chorus of moans. Fleetingly she was grateful for the strange impetus of the experiment that helped her not care, not worry about the discomfort she often had in her voice, that it didn’t suit or match the rest of her. That might have been why it had taken a long time for her to start to moan; certainly she was luxuriating in how her body felt. Her entire nervous system was dancing with pleasure, sensations flooding her. She had a strange mental picture of someone standing behind her, running his fingers over her skin, his touch expert, light when it should be light, firm where it should be firm, teasing exhilarating bliss from her entire body.
Her forearms had been lightly on the chair’s rests. Now they rose, her fingers extending down so fingertips could trail up and down the rests as if she were trying to stroke that same sensuous pleasure into the chair. After a few moments, one slid from the chair to her lap, stroking and teasing at her thigh. Through thick jeans it should not have been particularly stimulating but Felicity’s mind knew just the sensation she wanted her fingers to achieve, and supplied it, wilfully complicit in her own mental descent.
She felt as if there were no jeans at all. As if she were sitting naked, unashamed, enjoying her own body.
Her other hand slipped from the chair to her lap in turn, but continued moving, without any sense that she had decided this or even that she was in control, tracing across the smooth curve of her hip, across her belly, and up to her burgeoning breasts. Once, as they first formed, they had been so sensitive that touch was almost always uncomfortable. Now Felicity felt they’d never be uncomfortable again. That touch - hers or anyone else’s - on her body was what she craved, and that it would always be bliss, no matter the form. For the first time she understood why some people were so titillated by the idea of being spanked, struck, squeezed. It no longer needed to be the right touch; it just had to set her skin singing with bliss like this.
Three seats away, Erica had taken longer to start moving again. She wasn’t feeling pleasure in the same way, either; the heat her body was enjoying wasn’t reaching her mind, her awareness. She was only dimly aware her hands were active. Unlike Felicity, though, her hands felt as if they were moving at her bidding. She yanked her tight tee shirt up, giving the shorter of the two students paroxysms of glee from his vantage point, letting her tits drop free, the not-quite-bounce of their drop sending a wave of shuddering bliss through her, but only her body, not her mind, would register it.
Without hesitation her hands went to her breasts. While the other nine students divided their touch between their chest and their thighs or their crotch, Erica Carrow’s hands moved with a purpose. Her body may have loved the attention, but more than anything else, she was putting on a show.
By ten minutes into the experiment, each and every woman was squirming in their seat. Zips and buttons had been fumbled open, tops and bras that had kept them from proper contact had been tugged awkwardly and needfully aside. Their hands worked feverishly to bring them to the brink of orgasm - and -
The brink was where they stayed. Without enough conscious awareness to be frustrated at the lack of climax, they brought themselves to the edge, and there they stayed.
By the fifteenth minute, as they sat there whimpering and moaning, the door from the monitor room opened and Nick and Joey made their way into the room.
“Name?” Joey demanded.
“Erica Carrow,” she answered.
Joey gave vent to an asthmatic cackle, whickering softly. “I knew I recognised these tatas,” he said, reaching out to tug on a nipple. “You made all the campus Facebook groups last month.” Fireworks of programmed delight burst across Erica’s mind, though she didn’t give any outward sign. Inwardly she promised herself she’d remember that and make him pay, completely unaware that she’d do neither once the screen went blank.
Erica’s recitation was slower than the others Joey had checked. It had a sing-song rhythm; she’d given out her number so often that reflex performance had replaced the rote recall the others had been undergone.
“So far, which word is uppermost in your mind?”
“Fixated,” Erica said softly, surprised to hear the most important word in her head also falling from her lips.
Joey giggled. “Oh, we can definitely use that. Want to be fixated on me?”
“No,” she answered, with only the minor pause that he’d come to recognise as the time it took their listening minds to process the question. A flat rejection; his nostrils flared, and he almost started changing her out of petty spite. But running from rejection can become a deeply ingrained reflex, and he was recoiling internally before spite could build.
He’d decide, a day or two later, that this had actually been a demonstration of tremendous character growth on his part, as he nobly refrained from giving the stuck-up bitch what she deserved. Of course, by that point he had his hands full with Beatrice anyway.
“Favourite sex position?”
“Back against the wall, thighs around his hips, wrists pinned.” It was said with the total certainty of the deeply entranced, and it completely derailed Joey’s train of thought.
He’d decided that he’d always change their sex positions. Told himself it was a test of how they thought, how they behaved, whether they would accept direction properly.
On the fourth woman he tested, he gave up, because changing it to anything else would have been wrong. Erica Carrow was too much herself.
Although even then, he saw clearly how a fixated Erica Carrow could be very entertaining to play with. Maybe fixating her on him would meet too much resistance. But if she stayed oriented on her goals, she’d be easy to drive in a bunch of different ways.
“Address?” he asked, and it spooled out of her. Unlike the phone number, this was a monotone; pure recall slaved to speech. Just how often did Erica give out her phone number that the singsong recital was closer to recall than the bare facts of the number?
That was his checklist complete. But Joey wasn’t quite willing to just stop there.
“Paypal logins?” he asked. Legendarily the richest bitch on campus, after all; while she probably actually wasn’t, she definitely flashed the cash and didn’t want for anything. He knew Nick would be doing the funding test later, but that was a shared pool; this would be a little rainy-day money for Joey, who found it rained a lot more than people wanted to admit.
Erica gave it all up, without hesitation.
Nick lingered for a moment, thinking. But no. Felicity was a woman like the rest of their test cases. She should be handled the same way.
Felicity paused long enough for her mind to retrieve the information, then recited it. Actually she recited two; a mobile and a landline number with an area code Nick didn’t recognise. Presumably her family home phone.
Nick watched her lips as she spoke; she took more care in how she enunciated than most, one result of which was more precise shaping of her lips on each syllable. When she finished speaking, her lips stayed open, just barely parted. Nick finally realised that, yes, she was wearing makeup; very naturalistic, but just enough lip tint to show pink.
“So far, which word is uppermost in your mind?”
Those softly pink lips twitched for a second, and the tip of Felicity’s tongue emerged to run lightly over her lips. “Sensual.” Still parted, her lips settled into a dreamy smile.
Nick hesitated. He’d set rules for himself. He was going to be cautious, polite, and careful. Tests would be minor, controlled, deniable. They’d be measurable, as would the duration of their effects. Changing a thing about their preferences was something where they could see if it reverted over time.
It was perhaps a strange thing to say, but she seemed happier being led along by the programming - or maybe it was just that the program had temporarily suspended her awareness of her ongoing frustrations.
That was something he should test, sometime.
For the time being he reached out, brushed the back of his hand against her cheek, and saw her eyes roll back into her head, eyelids fluttering in a sudden overflush of pleasure.
“We need some proof.”
Joey had complained several times about how ridiculous it was that they were talking to military funding sources over Skype. Surely this wasn’t secure enough.
Still, that’s the situation they were in, and three weeks after the initial event, their handler had required a call to check in - a very sudden request, too. Seated in Nick’s apartment (Joey’s had quickly been dismissed as not nearly tidy enough to present a professional face to their backer), and faced suddenly with this demand, they turned uncomfortably to look at each other.
Nick broke the silence first. “Uh, sir, we’re still looking for a good way to confirm how long the effects last…”
“You know that,” their handler said impatiently. “I know that. But there are still oversight committees to be answered to, and they want video footage.”
The two researchers looked at each other again. Somehow, neither one felt that the kind of thing they’d had some of the women do would be accepted as proof that college students were under control instead of just listening to their own emotions.
“What do you need?” Nick said finally.
“They say this experiment is only any use if you can make them do something specific,” he said. “At not much notice. Can you boys deliver?”
“I think so.”
“Good. Do you have someone who can drive to the next town over, collect a package, and drive another twelve hours to deliver it, unsupervised?”
Nick felt a chill go over him. There was no way he could be confident. And he was starting to see the shape of the tasks their sponsors might be interested in achieving.
Plausible deniability. Nobody could link a random courier to the organisation. And whatever other task they might do - well, they’d be able to find someone who wouldn’t be suspected whatever they were asked to do.
It was too late to get off this rollercoaster, Nick suddenly realised, except maybe - maybe - if this task failed. At least they didn’t have a suitable candidate yet-
“Definitely,” Joey said. Nick glanced across, but his heart was already sinking. Joey never sounded that confident. This wasn’t a bluff. He’d remembered something that Nick hadn’t.
“Yeah. Only one so far. Most of them don’t have a… wide-ranging… key imprint. We could get them to that level, I reckon, but it’d take time. What do we need?”
“I’ll send you over the addresses,” the handler said. “She’s going to need to be at the first one for 9am. The drop—off point should be ten hours drive away. Collection will take place at 9pm sharp. That gives two hours’ leeway for food, refuel, or whatever.
“She’s going to have to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at the first location. The second, she’ll need to do it again. We’re confirming identity via biometrics. She’s not to investigate the package, or react to anything she sees during either end of the trip.” He paused. Sat back in his chair. Fixed each of them in turn with a stern glare. “You boys confident you can get that done?”
“For sure,” Joey said. “She won’t even register any details outside her job.”
Silence for a moment.
“That’s a hell of a claim,” their handler said. “Alright. Good news: If you can achieve that, we can be confident she’s working properly. That would get you full disbursement of your first milestone payment.”
Nick still wasn’t happy about any of this, but in spite of himself he was grinning now. The money was… well, no. The money might be worth it. And he was going to have to hope that something would make all of this.
“Well, then,” he said, hoping to get the call over with before Joey could say anything the pair of them would regret. “We’ll look forward to that email, and, uhh… speak to you tomorrow after 9pm?”
“Very soon after. Be ready for the call.” He nodded at the both and cut the connection.
Joey was already digging out his phone as Nick double-checked his laptop had stopped sending. At a time like this it paid to be paranoid.
“What are you doing?” he hissed.
“Relax, I’ve got this covered,” he said, waiting for the call to connect.
Erica was in the library when her phone went off. It wasn’t a place she’d been particularly familiar with, a month or so ago; she’d mostly gone in there to fetch out whatever hottie she’d been seeing at the time, impressing upon them that Erica Carrow mattered more than their studies.
It actually felt like a second home now. It was peaceful, quiet, calm. It was a place where getting serious work done was easy. And she felt like she had so much catching up to do.
She wasn’t going to be able to graduate that year. But if she maybe stayed on campus over the summer, took a couple of courses, and stayed the course, she’d be able to graduate the next year. She’d called home and discussed it with her father, and he seemed very excited by her drive - but also very suspicious.
That was fine, though. Enough dedication would make her drive, her passion, clear. Enough dedication and she’d have earned a place in the family business before too long, not just been given one.
When her phone rang, that was the first she realised she hadn’t put it on mute. Some old habits died hard; she’d always wanted to be accessible by anyone cool enough to a) have her number and b) not have been blocked yet.
She almost didn’t notice it, and everyone was staring at her by the time she picked it up. Erica Carrow was the centre of attention.
It had been weeks since that had last happened, hadn’t it? How was that possible? She was practically designed to be the centre of attention.
The number was unknown, but that was fine. Unknown was a new frontier. With a quick reminder to herself that whatever this was, she still needed to put in another hour or two’s work reviewing the texts she’d skipped today, she answered.
“Erica, are you fixated?”
She’d been trying to place where she knew the voice from, frowning thoughtfully, and it was that expression on her face when it froze, along with her whole body. The students watching, mostly, took it for embarrassment, and many looked away. None were close enough to her her voice, quiet with a strange, excited vacancy, breathe more than say “Yes…”
“Good. Get up and-”
She stood, of course, even as whatever else Joey was about to say was interrupted. A number of the students still watching looked on curiously. The expressions on a couple of the faces that turned away now said Of course Erica Carrow’s acting weird.
She couldn’t quite make out the words on the other end, focus as hard she could. There were two voices, both male, arguing in hushed tones; she wasn’t catching much more than the sibilants.
The first voice returned to the phone. “Are you alone?”
“Shit. What are you doing?”
“You? You’re studying?”
“OK. Never mind that now. Pack up your stuff, make excuses if you have to. Then come to us.” A few moments later, he sheepishly added the address, then hung up. She began packing up her books, notes, and everything else.
Joey grinned. “See?” he asked. “She’s all about focus. We just lay out the job and nothing else will matter to her until it’s done.”
“Christ,” Nick muttered.
“I owe you an apology, man,” Joey said. “You pushed to keep ‘fixated’ on the list. Without that we’d be losing funding! You’re some kind of genius.”
Nick considered, briefly, explaining the concerns he was dealing with now to Joey. But there was no way it was worth it.
For now he had to think of the money. He could try settling this with his conscience later.
“Let me do the programming once she’s here, OK?” he asked. “We need this one to be 100% right.”
Joey frowned, but he nodded.
Erica walked out of the apartment and started striding off across campus, and the two men watched her go.
“Doesn’t she live over that way?” Nick asked, pointing toward a block of dorms Erica wasn’t anywhere near.
Joey shrugged. “I think she’s headed for her car.”
Nick mulled that over. “She’s going to drive over there and stay in the car, isn’t she?”
Nick gave a low frustrated growl and stalked out. Joey, suddenly realising her was about to be locked in in his friend’s place, scrambled to catch him up, and they parted ways.
Nick walked around campus for an hour or two, waiting for his head to calm down, before he realised it wasn’t happening. He thought about paying a call on Cecily - being pampered was attractive right now, and his docile girl would be happy to do that - but it felt too much like thinking about the money. It would just be distracting himself. Not making anything better.
He bit his lip.
There was the possibility that conditioning someone could put them in a better place. There was a chance that doing so could even be fun.
And there was, too, the likelihood that he was completely out of his depth.
But there was a chance. And right now, he was too used to trying even when he should hold back and think it through to stop now.
He decided to see if Felicity had actually reached a more positive place from her conditioning.
Pulling up her address on his phone, he headed over there. Knocked on the door. Smiled when he saw her lazy, lopsided, dreamy smile as she opened the door.
“Felicity,” he asked, “are you sensual?”
He heard the sigh of bliss escape her as the self without worry took hold. Putting his hand on the back of her neck, he pulled her into a kiss, and stepped forward, pushing her back a pace into her rooms.
He closed the door behind him. Now to figure out if there was anything good in what he’d helped create…